During lockdown, my parents self-isolated in Watford, while my husband Andy, our three-year-old daughter Millie and I did the same in Market Harborough. No more big family meals at mum’s on Saturday afternoons, or weekends spent eating and laughing together at my new house.
Instead, I’d FaceTime them and wait impatiently for my mum, Ellie, to answer. I’d been gate-crashing their dinners via video, calling when I knew they’d be eating. Mum would answer and hold her chunk of tah dig (crispy ‘bottom of the pan’ Persian rice) to the camera and laugh. ‘Mikhori?’ she’d say in Farsi, asking if I’d eat some. When I groaned with the need for the food, she’d instantly feel guilty, wiping away tears, and so would I, the longing to see each other acute.
As we talked, our thoughts would turn to my grandmother, Mahin ‘Mami’ Behzad, isolated alone in her flat in Tehran – she was lonely and her mental health deteriorating. But we video-called most days, and I began asking her for recipes. They came interlaced with her memories of life as a young married woman, and how she’d cook for 50 guests, then fall asleep on her feet – Mami was often found snoozing upright in the guest mattress cupboard, her eyes closing the moment her head touched the stack she was supposed to be scooping up.
I called Mami close to lunchtime in Tehran most days to see what she had cooking on the hob. We talked for hours, bridging the thousands of miles between us as best we could. Whenever I saw fried onions and turmeric simmering in her pan, the familiar waft flooded my nose. Mami’s fried onions had been the olfactory theme tune of my childhood on long trips to see her in Iran, half a world away from my parents’ home in Hertfordshire. The base for most Persian dishes, fried onions evoke a thousand memories of summer holidays at Mami’s apartment.
Mami remains a ‘sheer-zan’, or lioness. Even at 86, she’s up at the crack of dawn to start lunch – ‘nahar’. While the world comes to life with tea and toast, Iranians are already thinking six hours ahead. ‘How else was I supposed to feed the dozen who came for nahar every day?’ she says. Washing, chopping, frying, steaming, Mami made complex, delicious Persian dishes daily for our extended family.
She tells me how she’d start at 4am, making khoresht bamieh, perfectly cooked okra and lamb; khoresht karafs, fried celery with herby chicken so fragrant, you’d smell it on your skin in bed; or khoresht gheimeh, yellow split pea and dried lime lamb stew, garnished with hand-cut, pan-fried fries so good, you’d eat twice as much as your stomach could handle. Us grandkids would pause our backgammon game to set the sofreh, a picnic blanket in the lounge, as the table was too small.
We’d cram in, cross-legged, and Mami would lean back against the sofa to enjoy the bedlam her cooking – and family – had brought. A meal with Iranians is an assault on your senses – a pleasant one! When you’ve grown up enjoying this deep-rooted, tactile, noisy connection with your relatives, it’s hard to imagine any other way.
When my husband Andy came for his first ‘mehmooni’, a dinner party at my parents’ home, he was shocked at the noise. Iranians hold multiple conversations across the table, a cacophony that includes Farsi, English, and sometimes both. Evening dinner is served late, followed by desserts – homemade ‘bastani’ (vanilla, saffron, cream and pistachio ice cream), shirni tar or ‘wet sweets’ (rolled sponge with rosewater and cream), and tea. My grandfather was a tea merchant, and tea always flowed at home, along with jokes and stories that poured from one generation to the next.
I grew up surrounded by Persian women who could really cook. My mum regularly hosted huge dinner parties and cooked melt-in-the-mouth lamb and aubergine (khoresht bademjoon) heaped on saffrontopped rice. Her bademjoon is famous, and I don’t try to emulate it. The crispy bit at the bottom of the rice pan – tah dig – is deliberate. Mami makes hers with saffron rice, or thin lavash bread. My aunt Taraneh adds fried onions. My paternal grandmother, Maman Ghodsieh, made hers with sliced potatoes. When I’m feeling fancy, so do I. That first bite of crispy potato transports me back to her dining table.
When I moved in with Andy, I missed the food I’d grown up eating, and began curating recipes from the Iranian women in my life. I started with Mami, and the first Persian dish I made was Kurdish. My grandfather, Rahman Otmishi, grew up in Mohabad in the north-west of Iran, which has a Kurdish-Iranian cuisine all its own. Mami is famed in my family for her Kurdestan abeh morgh, a chicken soup that I swear cures all ailments. I added my own twists, like dried mint when I ‘taft’ (sear) the chicken with onions and turmeric, and fresh tomato. When Mum tasted it, she swore; something about me making it better than Mami’s.
News of it travelled – my uncle Homayoun texted: ‘What’s this I hear about you cooking it better than Mami?’ My British friends loved it. When their kids get sick, they cook my take on Mami’s abeh morgh. When Mami next visited, I cooked it for her and she beamed with pride. Both she and Mum took credit that I had their ‘dast-pokht’, or cooking hand.
Persian cooking passes down through generations of women, their recipes a living legacy of our heritage. There’s a saying in Farsi that aunts ‘have a whiff of your mother’ about them. Sadly, mine – Elina and Faizeh – have passed away, but their cooking was like my mum’s, always a comfort.
As a British-Iranian born and raised in the UK, I grew up outside British culture. My name was as weird to my schoolmates as the aubergine sandwiches in my lunchbox. Now, my heritage is a superpower. My Scottish mother-in-law makes my joojeh (chicken) kabab in lieu of a roast dinner, and when I weaned my daughter, I gave her the same Iranian food I’d craved through pregnancy. I left the harder recipes to my mum, and Millie loved all of them.
Mami is as tech-savvy as grandmothers come, and throughout the pandemic, we’ve sent WhatsApp emojis and voicenotes to each other, video-called and sent Instagram posts daily. I’m bilingual, but I’m re-learning reading Farsi for her, as she is the English alphabet for me – something we’d put off until lockdown made us realise that a shared written language is important. We both want to understand the Farsi, English and mixed ‘Finglish’ content that’s in our large family WhatsApp group.
During lockdown, I cooked Mami’s loobia polo – cinnamon and saffron lamb stew steamed with green beans and tomato rice. She talked me through it, surprising me with additions like lemon juice, and melted butter to serve on the rice at the table. I’m disabled, so I prepped and cooked it in stages, then sent pictures. Mami loved seeing her greatgranddaughter scooping up mouthfuls with natural yogurt, like Persians do.
While self-isolating, I’ve made Persian dishes I’ve never attempted, driven by cravings and missing my family. Mum and Mami are my recipe books, but they never say how much of anything to use. Everything is ‘cheshmi’ – eyeballed. I have the technique, know the flavour and Mami’s secret ingredients, but it’s up to me to get the balance. Seven years in, I’m still learning, but every time I get it right, a mouthful transports me to Mami’s sofreh. Mami and Mum’s love of cooking won’t stop with me.
At just three, Millie loves helping me make her own grandmother’s mast-o-khiar (mint cucumber yogurt with garlic, walnuts and raisins). Millie says she wants to be a cook and, with generations of family recipes flowing through her veins, she might just do it.
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Punteha van Terheyden is a freelance journalist, editor and ghostwriter specialising in true-life, and founder of ethical journalism platform Lacuna Voices. Her Iranian heritage has shaped her love for cooking, and she is a champion of equality and diversity in the media.
Photos by vfeatures.co.uk.